Lisa Hooper has overseen quite a lot of change during her eight years as executive director of the town’s Council On Aging, ranging from the installation of a new commercial kitchen to the beginning of a bocce group.
The Council, situated in the Judy and Gene Jacobi Community Center just below Marblehead High School, offers a seemingly endless number of programs — and not just for seniors. As Hooper explains it, the council seeks to be a warm and welcoming environment for all, with offerings bound to appeal across generations.
“We try really hard to provide a lot of social activity because that’s key, in any age, of healthy aging,” Hooper said during an interview and tour of the council Tuesday afternoon. “When I came here, it was very different.”
On any given day, the council sees between 125 and 175 people come in and out between 7:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Hooper said one of the most popular programs they offer is “Lunch by Doug,” a reference to Doug Laing, who runs nutrition at the center. Demand for that program grew so quickly that it is now held in the gym rather than the dining room, in an effort to accommodate the high volume of people.
Hooper explained that she believes food brings people in, and the program tries to cater to residents 55 and over, meaning that oftentimes the meal has to appeal across generations.
“That’s almost two generations, and the food that people like are also two different generations so we can prepare for whoever we’re having for lunch,” she said.
The Marblehead COA draws people from across the North Shore, she added.
Councils on Aging work kind of like libraries, Hooper said, and many of the councils in the area work together to support seniors.
Growing up in Swampscott, Hooper never planned to live in Marblehead. She wound up moving to town in 1990 and raising both her children here. Before joining the COA as executive director, Hooper worked in human resources before shifting to home care, where she worked in dementia-specific adult day health, and dementia-specific geriatric care management.
Hooper explained that her mother was a nurse and social worker, and was recruited to start a home care agency. She joined the agency on the operations side, helping to grow it from two employees to 80. The pair sold the company in 2008, Hooper said.
Hooper was a member of the council’s board before serving as executive director, joining more than a decade ago before applying for the executive director position after the retirement of one executive director and the departure of another. She was chosen by the Select Board out of a pool of 30 candidates following a public interview and vote, which she said was “the worst part.”
She loves the work.
“I’ve worked with seniors now for 35 years and it’s great. I love the seniors,” she said. “Everybody has a story.”
“When you look at somebody who’s older, you should never think that they didn’t have a life because sometimes if you talk to them, you go ‘Oh my goodness, you’ve lived through all that?'” Hooper continued.
In 2015 when she took over, Hooper was told the biggest problems with the council were its parking and its food. So she set out to fix them.
“The way it goes now is there’s two-hour parking on the street so the high school kids can’t park there all day. It took us four years but we received funding, we built this kitchen,” she said. “We were going to bring congregate meals back in after COVID, and elder services funds that, and so we went to sign up to do it and they couldn’t do it. So we said, ‘OK, we’re going to go live.'”
Hooper doesn’t take all the credit for the changes the council has undergone since she took over, praising her staff and Program Manager Janice Salisbury-Beal in particular for helping bolster the offerings.
Salisbury-Beal said she started at the council in 2009, “when they were still doing things like Bingo.”
“Since I got my feet under me. The whole focus has changed, and so now it’s really more on healthy aging and exercise,” she said, noting that the council features a fitness center with state-of-the-art equipment.
“People also now come from all over the North Shore, to come to our programs, because they’re just so engaging and so vibrant,” Salisbury-Beal said. “And it’s just the place to be. Everybody just enjoys coming in the door and they feel welcome.”